With the upcoming expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires after the 2021 season, service time is one of the most likely topics to be on the docket. Under current rules, a player must reach six full years of Major League service time before becoming eligible for free agency. That includes time spent on the active roster and the Major League injured list.
For years, teams have been manipulating the service time of young players to gain an extra year of club control. This is typically done by having the player start the season in the Minor Leagues, even when it seems obvious that the player has nothing left to prove. While a Major League season consists of 187 days, a player must spend just 172 days on the active roster or IL to be eligible for a full year of service time. That hard cutoff makes it quite easy for a team to call up a player a day later to ensure they only reach 171 days on the roster for that season, thus gaining an extra year of control for the team.
The most publicized of the service time manipulation cases was the case of Kris Bryant. Though he had a stellar spring in 2015 after previously excelling in the Minors, the Cubs sent him down to the Minors for that magic number of days to ensure he didn’t get enough service time to count as a full year. At the time, the team cited defensive shortcomings as the reason for sending Bryant to the Minors, but that didn’t prevent Bryant from filing a grievance against the Cubs for what he thought was service time manipulation. While Bryant would end up losing the grievance, it is still expected that this type of service time manipulation would be a major point of contention for the new CBA.
Today, we saw what it looks like when a player manipulates their own service time, with Marcus Stroman opting out of the 2020 season after obtaining enough service time to become a free agent after the season. Stroman had yet to pitch in 2020, spending the beginning of the season on the IL. He had every right to opt-out if he felt unsafe, however, you have to wonder if the timing of the decision was intentional. It’s possible the Mets will file a grievance to retain control of Stroman, given that he was never on the active roster this season prior to opting out. Whether it was Stroman’s intention or not, it seems like a bad look for a player who is going to be on the open market, even though he could have simply been gaming the owners at their own system.
The Bryant and Stroman situations bring us to the same point though, that all service time manipulation is a problem. Service time manipulation should not be allowed on the owners’ part because it is unfair to the players, in the same way that it shouldn’t happen on the players’ part because it is unfair to their teams. With the next CBA, this is a topic that absolutely needs to be resolved, so we will take a look at two options to resolve the issue.
The Active Roster Solution
It’s painfully obvious that simply changing the number of days a player needs to be on the roster to obtain a year of service time is not the solution. If a player only needed 100 days on the active roster, nothing is stopping teams from doing the same thing they already do and waiting until a player can only accrue 99 days. Thus, more drastic measures need to be taken to protect the players.
The most likely solution would be for the league to say that if a player spends any amount of time on the active roster, he accrues a year of service time, but that is probably a bit too strict. Rather, there needs to be flexibility for teams so that short-term call ups don’t achieve a full year of service time. This could mean that only a player that spends more than a week, 10 days, two weeks, or even a month would accrue that full year of service time. Any of those cutoffs make some sense, as any player falling under any of those proposed limits would be considered a short-term call-up. It would be much more difficult to game the system while still fielding a competitive team.
Another potential modification of this rule would be to exempt time spent on the roster in the month of September from being included when determining a player’s service time eligibility, as teams might be discouraged from calling up prospects if it counted against their service time. In this case, the league and players’ association would likely want to go with one of the shorter limits above, such as a week or 10 days on the active roster outside of September to be eligible for a year of service time.
The 40 Man Roster Rule
Another way to go about it is to simply start every player’s service time clock once they are added to the 40-man roster. This solution may seem a bit simpler to enforce on the surface, as there’s already a strict requirement of when a player needs to be added to the 40-man roster in order to be protected from the Rule 5 draft. In this case, a team would likely be given an extra year or two of control over a player (to total either seven or eight years of control after the player has been added to the 40-man) to allow them time to develop in the Minors. This solution seems cleaner and less open to manipulation, so it may be the eventual route the league and players’ association pursue.
Both solutions presented above are likely to help prevent service time manipulation on the owners’ part, but at the same time, some safeguards may need to be put in place to protect the owners as well. Though you’re not likely to have another season like 2020 with a multitude of players opting out, some sort of provision keeping players from simply leaving the team upon reaching their necessary service time could still be put into place for the rare instances this may happen. The league and the Players Association will be ready to debate all these topics and more during CBA negotiations next year.